When I first visited Afghanistan in 1996, to write an article about al-Qaeda training camps outside Jalalabad, an Afghan man called my attention to the Tora Bora mountains. “There are foreigners up there, training for war,” he said. “If we Afghans go up there, they’ll kill us. And this is our country. Something bad is going to come from this.”
Indeed it did. Almost 20 years after that conversation, I have sworn off war reporting but still care deeply about Afghanistan. I refused to cover the Iraq War because I was so opposed to it, but Afghanistan was a different matter. Not only were the planners of the 9/11 attacks clearly holed up there, but I thought that the United States might be able to do a lot of good in a nation that was locked in a cycle of civil war and poverty. I grew up during Vietnam and am liberal in my politics, but I watched NATO save Bosnia from genocide and firmly believe in military intervention when civilian lives are in danger. And that was the case during Afghanistan’s long, horrible civil war.
It’s too early to tell if we changed Afghanistan, but Afghanistan certainly changed us. James Fallows, in his ambitious article for The Atlantic on the “tragedy of the American military,” outlines one of the most dangerous of those changes: a dysfunctional divide between the American public and its military. According to Fallows, the public is disengaged, the military is indulged with a huge budget, and arms manufacturers swoop in to pick up lucrative contracts. As a result, Congress approves ridiculously expensive programs, like the F-35 fighter jet, that do not make Americans safer but serve powerful corporate interests. Fallows makes a devastating case against the F-35, but it’s no more devastating than the cases that could be made against undue corporate influence on government officials involved in approving bank bailouts or the Keystone XL pipeline. Many a congressman can be bought with a steak dinner and a back rub, and weapons manufacturers feel just as entitled to this form of corruption as anyone else.